Conrad Mericoffer: “I have several inner worlds and if I don’t express myself, I’m overcome with anxiety”

7 September, 2021

Conrad Mericoffer’s performance in “Poppy Field” (2020), Eugen Jebeleanu’s feature film debut, is one of the best in Romanian cinema this year. Proof of this are the awards for best actor he received at Turin and Gijón, two of the many festivals where the film has been selected over the past year.

This is his first lead role in a feature film. He plays a gay police officer whose French boyfriend comes to visit him in Bucharest and who is part of the team called to intervene at a movie theater where an ultra-nationalist, homophobic group has sabotaged the screening of an LGBT film.

Born on December 4, 1988 in Bucharest, Conrad Mericoffer went to “Nicolae Iorga” for his first three years of high school, and for his senior year, he went to the Central School. Between 2008 and 2012, he studied acting at UNATC (three years of bachelor’s degree, plus two years of master’s degree).

He started performing on stage in college and since then, he has collaborated with several theaters in Bucharest as a freelance actor and has appeared in well-known productions. In 2011, he won the UNITER Debut Award for his role as Trifomov in “The Cherry Orchard” staged at the National Theater in Bucharest. In 2017, he was nominated for the UNITER Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Sergius in “The Chocolate Soldier” staged at the Odeon Theater.

He also wrote and directed two short films, “Casting Call” (2015) and “When It’s Snowing Outside” (2017), and starred in short films such as “Silence” (2018), by Alex Iureş, and “There Is Nothing in This World” (2015), by Andreea Vălean. In recent years, he has played and written for television series, and is currently working on a very personal screenplay for a feature film.


How easy was it to accept the role in Poppy Field? What attracted you to the script and the character?

Eugen and I have been working together since our career beginnings. But before making the film, we had about two and a half years when we didn’t see each other much. He was gone, I had other projects. We kind of had a falling out even in our friendship.

Someone else was supposed to play the part, but they had some timing issues. Eugen called me one night and asked me if I wanted to come for an audition. I said yes. To be honest, I wasn’t very thrilled about it, because I was in a bad place. I had a rough time for a few years and I wanted to give up theater, film, art, all of them.

It was 2018. I went to the audition. Then Eugen called me to ask if I wanted the part. I accepted, still not very convinced about it. Rehearsals began in late August or early September. We rehearsed a lot until December. Then we had another rehearsal period just before shooting started, at the end of January-beginning of February 2019. On set, it was easy, because we already knew each other. I’ve said this before: if it wasn’t for Eugen, I wouldn’t have made this film, because it’s a subject that many use to get attention, just for the sake of it. But it could easily turn into something pathetic.

Besides, Eugen has a certain sensibility. He doesn’t interfere much with your work as an actor, just enough to help you go in the right direction. He has faith in you. There’s no hassle, which I absolutely hate.

There are many directors who don’t know what to ask from the actor. Out of frustration that they don’t know how to work with the actor, something they rarely admit, they blame it on them – the actor is the one who doesn’t understand, the actor is stupid. Surely there are bad actors, but it’s often the directors’ fault, because they don’t know how to direct. It seems that they often turn to clichés, or rely upon images in their heads. They may not understand that the actor works with things that come from within, not from outside. In such cases, you find yourself in a conflict. When I was 28, I made the decision not to take any more bullshit, so if I get into a conflict as such, I back down from the project. It’s better if we go our separate ways.

Everything went smoothly with Eugen. We already knew each other. He doesn’t mingle in your work, he knows what to ask, he doesn’t cross the line. We are honest with each other. It may come off as brutal at times, but honesty is necessary if you don’t want to waste time. We are efficient. And that’s cool.

Do you think actors are reluctant to play such roles?

No, not at all. What I was saying was that I didn’t want to get involved in anything superficial. I’m tired of doing superficial things. I know how important the subject is to Eugene. I know it’s a statement. It’s primarily a challenge for him. But it’s honest, it’s not a subject he invented to get attention. I’m fed up with helping people do whatever nonsense goes through their heads, irrelevant, bland ideas. I’m not into that anymore.

What was the work process like?

We rehearsed a lot. I spent a lot of time on the text, including with Ioana Moraru, the screenwriter. There were several drafts. We didn’t want to end up shooting something that would have seemed improvised, or like we didn’t know what we wanted.

I wanted to understand what happens inside the character. At first reading, it seems simple: he is an introvert who keeps his sexuality secret at his workplace. He’s frustrated that he can’t express himself freely. But if you peel off his layers, you realize that there are many things that may not be evident, but which were important to me as an actor. For example, his silences. Silences are not accidental, not even in everyday life. That’s why I like them so much. We use them, but we’re not aware of it. Both in theater and film, we often tend to explain, to talk a lot, to fill the silence. Obviously, there are also silences that say nothing, because they don’t stem from something that comes from within.

We rehearsed a lot trying to figure out why he was silent or why he should be silent at a certain moment. Why he says or doesn’t say this or that. And it helped us, because things went very smoothly during shootings. Maybe too smoothly at some point. Halfway through, we were wondering if there wasn’t something wrong with the film we were making because it was all too easy. We even finished shooting earlier than expected.

The camera is always on your face. Did you feel any pressure in front of it?

We had a great team, extremely discreet. I was so lucky to work with such an amazing team. Marius (i.e. – Marius Panduru, DoP) is an extremely discreet camera operator. You can barely feel his presence. We even had rehearsals with the camera. I had a great deal of trust in the people on the team, from Eugen to Velvet (i.e. – Velvet Moraru, producer), so I didn’t feel any pressure whatsoever. It really felt like an easy ride.

Poppy Field had a consistent festival run, you even won some awards. What does this film mean to you? Do you see it as a stimulus that can restore your confidence in yourself and your profession?

Paradoxically, my confidence, professionally speaking, has lately been below sea level. I have to admit, I would only work on film projects if I could. Unfortunately, there aren’t so many films being made that I can say I’m going to make a living from it. Theater seems to be on a declining path. I can’t relate to it anymore. I feel that it’s just useless clamor from start to end. Cinema, at least, has a higher exposure. When you’re making a film, it’s cool that you’re working for three or five weeks and then you’re done. In theater, on the other hand, it’s really boring. You rehearse for a month and a half, then perform the same thing for five years straight that you don’t even know what you’re playing anymore. I get bored very quickly, especially now, at this age.

As I said, I would just make films if it were up to me. But I’m an extremely cerebral person when it comes to life, and I realize that won’t be the case. One thing is for sure, I must somehow earn my living. Maybe I’ll work in theater for a while more. But I will definitely continue working in television.

You’re a freelance actor, you were never a theater employee. Is it a status you always intended to have or did it just happen to be like that?

No one has ever offered me this opportunity. But I didn’t insist either. I didn’t apply when job openings were announced, because I don’t like being under authority. Once I got hired, I would feel like I was passed over for something I didn’t like: just an employee going to work. I collaborated with almost all theaters in Bucharest and I saw how jaded my peers have become. I don’t want this. I’d rather not do it than end up like some employee in a supermarket: finish your shift, then go home.

That’s just how I am. I get bored quickly. I don’t like going to the same place every time. And in Romania, you hardly have a project every three or four years that you like and that motivates you. You can’t make a living from that. Motivation leaves you at some point, including because you are entering another project.

But what do you like about filmmaking?

The rhythm. The fact that you work for a much shorter and more intense period. I like the atmosphere on set. The fact that the locations are changing. I like being among people, talking to them.

Do you think that your debut in cinema as a leading actor has come too late? How come you haven’t debuted earlier? There were no opportunities? You didn’t go to castings?

I wasn’t called for auditions, to be honest. Once, a director told me that I have the face of a foreigner and it’s not very suitable for Romanian films. And when I did go to auditions, I wasn’t given the part.

How does it feel in such cases? Are you demotivated?

Oh, yes. I get really down. I start thinking that maybe this profession is not for me. Why keep torturing myself? I don’t like doing that to myself. And it’s not like I have this drive to become the greatest actor in Romania. Evidently, I want to be an actor, because I like it. But I’m terrified by the idea of becoming an alcoholic and frustrated actor in my 50s. So it’s better to be flexible. I do what I know and see where I’m going from there. As it was with television.

What does acting offer you?

I have several inner worlds, and if I don’t express myself, I somatize them, I’m overcome with anxiety and desolation. I need to control them in one way or another. Sometimes I can do so only creatively. Other times, I find something else, like working out. If I don’t do that, they stay in my head and it’s like a multi-instrumental concert that never stops.

But what does television offer you, apart from financial security?

A certain professionalism. There’s no waste of time, because it’s all about money. When a lot of money is invested in something, people don’t want to lose it. Time really means money in television. But I wouldn’t work in television as an actor anymore. In the last two years, I’ve worked more as a screenwriter, writing for television. I want to be involved, but from behind the camera. Obviously, it’s not art. But you feel like you’re doing something, that you’re working. I swear, I miss working. When I’m doing theater, I don’t feel like I’m working.

Then there’s the financial aspect, and television motivates me in this sense. I have to admit, I’m a man who likes money very much. I like having money. I like this security, it offers me space to make art.

Television also makes you famous.

Yes, but it’s ridiculous. Let’s be serious. I now have 31,000 followers on Instagram, of which 29,000 are kids between 9 and 11 years old. But, there are also people who stop you on the street to congratulate you, and obviously, that’s cool, it feels nice, it means you did well.

How do you reconcile with the attention you sometimes get from the tabloids, which have written about your relationship, about your divorce?

I never gave an interview about it. Not because I wasn’t asked, but I don’t see who would be interested. Anyway, it’s just a temporary thing. A few people read about it and then the subject expires.

Many say that they expose themselves, that they feel the need to talk about their personal lives – to me, it feels quite hypocritical – so that people understand what they have been through, and maybe this way they’ll find some healing. Bullshit. Every experience is different. No one is going to look at how I dealt with a situation so they can do the same in order to solve their problems. But for some, it’s a way of living. They love the attention, to have their dramas displayed on magazine covers. I have no such cravings. I find it really ridiculous.

You’ve also flirted at one point with screenwriting and directing, when you made two short films, Casting Call and When It’s Snowing Outside. Why did you stop?

I stopped because I felt I had nothing to say as a screenwriter and director. After making When It’s Snowing Outside, I got into a depression, I couldn’t write for two years. Then I started writing for television, where it was just a job, I wasn’t emotionally involved. And about half a year ago, I started writing again for a feature film that I want to make. Who knows if I’ll finish it? But I like it a lot. It’s very personal.

What was it like to be a director?

I really enjoy working with actors. I like being on set. But, I don’t like the pre-production stage. I don’t like those meetings. I feel there is an extraordinary potential among the actors, which I do not see exploited in film. There are many actors who are not used at all.

Looking back, ten years after graduation, how would you describe the UNATC experience?

It did help me. Why say otherwise? Obviously, there were times when I was disappointed about certain things, because you come with a lot of expectations. Because of the Bologna system, there are a lot of students. Teachers are not to blame. It may sound cynical, but that’s the truth: they tacitly select some students over time and they focus more on them than others. That’s just the way it is, there’s no alternative.

I was very present during college. I was there pretty much all the time, but with me, not with the teachers. I was doing my voice, breathing, and diction exercises. I was going to the theater and watching a lot of movies. It’s important to do things outside college. Realistically speaking, teachers can’t be there to watch every move you make. There are many students to look after. You have to take as much as you can from each teacher and try to integrate it into yourself. It depends on the person, but I think that’s a good thing because it helps you think, put yourself in a certain situation, find solutions on your own. Most of the time, you get frustrated. But after a while, you realize that was okay.

I started working in theater when I was 18. I finished my first year of college and got a part in a play staged at the Metropolis Theater, and that helped me a lot. I was working a lot outside of college. However, I didn’t work on film projects as much as I would’ve liked to. I wasn’t lucky enough to have that working for me, too.

You went into acting in high school.

I wasn’t in a theater group. I was going to some classes that were held at the Art School on Saturdays. There was a teacher, Petronela Lazăr, who liked me very much and taught me about acting. I was going to the theater a lot. That’s all I was doing then. And it’s true, you can also learn on your own. Sure, you need to be perceptive. Also, I was reading a lot. I still do and I think it’s something that my profession is in great need of. It’s very important. You can watch 500 series on Netflix, but it’s not the same. That’s my opinion. Reading helps you understand that things can’t always be the same. It helps you change how you approach things from time to time, otherwise, you fall into a ​​mannerism where you do everything by “technique”.

When did you decide to apply to UNATC?

It was an instant decision at the beginning of the tenth grade. Initially, I wanted to become a director. But let me tell you what I thought at the time being a director means. Before going to acting classes at Art School, on the summer break between the ninth and tenth grades, I decided to do theater. One of the teachers organized a drama competition at my school. I had a role there, I played Pampon. Teachers and students liked my performance, and they started telling me I should pursue acting. A classmate asked me to go with her to the Art School classes and I did. But before starting the classes, I remember I had a blue, large shirt and a shoulder bag, and I was walking around the University Square, imagining that that’s what a director would look like. I told myself I had to become a director because I looked like one.

You had to pass the admission exam in order to enter the acting classes at Art School. I went on stage, they asked why I came. I said I wanted to be a director. They asked me if I knew who Chekhov was. I didn’t. Then how do you want to be a director? Finally, they asked me to say the monologue. I prepared Pampon’s monologue from Carnival Stories. If I had been on the committee, I would have failed myself immediately. I leaned against a piano behind me, kept my head low, and began to deliver the monologue. I was just saying the words out loud, nothing else. But I passed. They saw something in me.

Where does your artistic inclination come from?

As far as I know, my parents had no artistic inclinations. My mother is a lawyer, and my father is an engineer. But I was always attracted to this world. When I was little, I wanted to become a painter. After that, I wanted to become an architect, an idea I carried with me until later in high school, when I made the transition to acting.

My family had a friend who was a painter, Nae Săftoiu; he was very cool. I was fascinated by his apartment; it was full of paintings, all kinds of painting tools lying around. He gave me some engravings he made and told me that I could doodle on the back of them.

I also had a neighbor, he was a few years older than me, and the walls in their entrance hall were crammed with small paintings of caricatures made by his grandfather, a caricaturist in the interwar period. I also liked drawing cartoons. And I wanted to learn the craft. I remember knocking on his door all the time, inventing all sorts of things so that he would open the door and I could look over his shoulder at the paintings. I would pick one, focus on it, then go home to copy it from my mind.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.